by Catherine Hanley, Caroline Gibson, David Metcalfe and Cath Lambert, University of Warwick
Since the launch of Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research in October 2007, we have documented in our editorials the emergence and growth of the provision of opportunities for publishing undergraduate research both in the UK and internationally. Significantly, many of these ventures have gained high-profile recognition which in turn puts undergraduate research activity on the intellectual map. For example, the McGill Journal of Medicine (MJM) has been indexed by the research database Medline, placing it firmly among the most eminent titles in clinical science. Although an undergraduate-edited journal, the MJM recently published research papers by leading academics, thus creating an interesting reversal of the traditional student-teacher relationship.
Reinvention itself has continued to attract a great deal of positive attention, and, most importantly, a steady flow of high-quality submissions. For the launch issue, we sought papers from undergraduates based at just two institutions, the University of Warwick and Oxford Brookes University; for Volume 1, Issue 1 we canvassed submissions from other institutions and published one such ‘guest’ paper in our April 2008 edition. As of this current issue, Reinvention has become a truly international endeavour in welcoming submissions from all undergraduates, wherever in the world they are based. As well as diversifying the range of articles, this expansion has helped to maintain the high standards required to showcase undergraduate research effectively on the international stage.
The topic of undergraduate research and publication remains a contested and often contentious field. Reinvention contributes to these debates and our editorial team of students and staff continue to pay critical attention to the challenges which undergraduate research poses to the field of academic publishing and the academy itself. Three particular issues have come to the fore in recent months: peer review; parity in standards between undergraduate and other academic work; and collaborative research and writing. We briefly outline the discussions which have arisen, beginning with the challenges of peer review.
WHO IS THE ‘PEER’ IN PEER REVIEW?
The expansion of Reinvention, and particularly the widening of the journal’s geographical and disciplinary scope, has led us further afield in seeking peer reviewers. The response to such requests has been overwhelmingly positive, with one reviewer writing ‘this is such a good initiative [...] we had been talking/ wondering about similar ideas’, and another: ‘I had promised myself I was not going to do any more reviews this year […] however, I really respect what you are doing, so […] I will be happy to review it’. At the same time we have occasionally struggled to recruit peer reviewers for highly specialised papers. These difficulties have sometimes been exacerbated by questioning attitudes: one potential reviewer declined to read a paper as the academic in question did not consider undergraduates ‘peers’, thereby adding to a debate which has been ongoing within the journal team.
Reinvention takes the position that our authors are researchers first and foremost, notwithstanding their substantive status as undergraduates. The term ‘peer review’ is therefore as valid as when describing the review, by an eminent professor, of work submitted by a junior academic. Undergraduates may be at the beginning of their careers, but, whether they choose to continue those careers within academe or outside of it, they will inevitably at some point have their work appraised by more experienced professionals. We trust that our peer-review process enables them to become stronger, more confident researchers.
Acknowledging a need to flatten the hierarchy inherent in our current review process, we are also about to begin a training programme for undergraduate students to enable them to peer review each others’ work. Perhaps this goal is paradoxical: if academics and undergraduates can be peers, why – apart from teaching students an important skill – train students to review each others’ work? The question of academic hierarchy has stimulated much discussion and the editorial team welcome thoughts from others willing to join the debate.
HOW HIGH TO SET THE BAR?
The question of hierarchy was not the only challenge raised by our peer reviewers. Some contacted us to ask how much ‘leeway’ they should give undergraduate students: did we really want them to review each submission as though it were being considered for an established academic journal? Our answer was ‘yes’, and a number of submissions were rejected as a result. The difference between good work at the level of undergraduate assessment and manuscripts suitable for publication can be considerable. As one reviewer commented:
My assessment of this article can be briefly summed up. Viewed as work by an undergraduate author it is superb and deserves high praise and high marks. Viewed as a contribution to a learned journal in its own field I could not recommend publication.There are a number of reasons why undergraduates could be permitted some ‘leeway’. Very few, if any, benefit from the same access to study leave, funding, or research facilities as many academic researchers. Undergraduates rarely have the opportunity to spend large periods of time doing fieldwork; they are often excluded from using original manuscript documents in archives. In science, undergraduates cannot conduct primary research without adequate laboratory facilities typically reserved for staff and postgraduates.
As a result of these limitations, undergraduate researchers sometimes fail to access original, or the most up-to-date, sources, and empirical studies tend to be small-scale. Recognising these potential restrictions raises questions for publishers of undergraduate research. Should small-scale projects be rejected simply because they are small scale? Should manuscript analyses be disadvantaged because an undergraduate has had perforce to examine microfilm or digital images, and not original documents? Or should a science manuscript be rejected because its author was only permitted six weeks’ access to a professional laboratory? After all, such conditions would prevent an experienced scholar, let alone an undergraduate new to research, from contributing significantly to existing knowledge. As one reviewer wrote:
Ultimately if this were a regular paper I wouldn't recommend publication as it stands. The study is quite short so the value of the information is questionable […] However saying that it is a good student study so it all depends on how high you want to set the bar.
Such restrictions also manifest themselves in peer reviewers’ feedback, which tends to penalise undergraduate risk-taking. It is noteworthy that submissions with a strong element of primary research or fieldwork often provoked greater criticism from reviewers than more overtly theoretical or narrative articles. Although the tendency of peer review to penalise risk-taking is not unique to undergraduate work, it is perhaps exaggerated by the conditions under which undergraduates conduct research. This is an issue to which we continue to pay critical attention.
Finally, we have spent a good deal of time discussing issues related to collaborative research and authorship between undergraduate students and postgraduate students and/or academic staff. To date, Reinvention has only published work which has been produced and written solely by undergraduate students; however, we have received a number of enquiries from authors working collaboratively. We are mindful of the fact that collaborative work provides one of the richest sources of opportunity for undergraduates to experience research, particularly in the sciences. The Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research actively promotes collaborative work and indeed the journal itself is a collaborative venture between students and staff. However, the difficulties around defining ‘collaborative’ in a way which still foregrounds undergraduate involvement in research and ownership of research outputs have made us cautious of inviting collaborative submissions to regular issues of Reinvention. As a result, a special issue of collaborative work is now in preparation: this will be published in addition to the regular issues and will enable us to explore some of the challenges which may arise from these submissions.
THE CURRENT ISSUE
Volume 1, Issue 2 showcases work from a variety of disciplines. In his study of the behavioural patterns of the purple-faced leaf monkey in Sri Lanka, Richard Moore reminds us that undergraduate fieldwork is possible with hard work and, perhaps, imagination. Similarly, Ross Brooks draws on a range of primary resources for his discussion of male homoeroticism in 18th and 19th century German legal texts. Contemporary legal analysis is carried out by Erin Culley in her paper on the legal status of same-sex relationships. Other authors have adopted discursive analyses in areas as distinct as social group inclusion (Michael Barkasi), development of the European Union (Maarten Hillebrandt), and the relevance of postmodernism (Fran Amery). These articles demonstrate that undergraduate research is a viable ambition, and we hope that you enjoy reading them.
To cite this paper please use the following details: Hanley, C., Gibson, C., Metcalfe, D. & Lambert, C. (2008), ‘Editorial: Reinvention One Year On', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 1, Issue 2, http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/go/reinventionjournal/archive/volume1issue2/Editorial Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.